Category Archives: Problems With Materialism

Question Everything (Except…)

tumblr_m8tq30CQvB1rq27uuo1_500In his “Miracle of Theism”, Mackie discusses the idea that people might believe in God without any rational reason. In fact, he discusses a few ideas under that heading, asking whether fideism (belief without reason) can be an intellectually respectable position.

My position, like Mackie’s, is that it cannot. In fact, I want to do Mackie one better and say that “just because I believe” is not an intellectually respectable position regardless of the content of that belief.

Mackie, it seems, is only interested in this question as it relates to theism. It never seems to occur to him that, if one must give a reason for one’s beliefs, then materialists, neutral monists, non-reductive naturalists, and other non-theists must also defend their views.

It is, I would say, the general approach of the non-theist to appeal to his/her views as a sort of default position, a thing not to be questioned in the same way that other views are.

But, not only does this distort any real attempt at getting at truth, it prevents non-theistic views from really being examined or refined. As one who believes in questioning–in subjecting views to scrutiny, I’ve believe in the value of challenges, and don’t trust a view that I’m not allowed to question.

Of course, there are those who would balk at the idea that one is allowed to question theism (usually seizing the chance to mock it), but their actions betray the lie. They’ve been given the right to question theism, as is evident from the fact that they’re openly questioning it.

And I have no problem with questioning in itself, but simply take the same approach to the assumptions of non-theist views.

But Mackie doesn’t object to this so much as fail to notice that it is a significant point. If he can’t defend his view on the same terms that he asks that theism be defended, then he has not made a case that his view is superior.


Do You Believe in Magic?

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

A good way to show off one’s ignorance of theology is to throw the word “magic” around.

At least, it is if one is implying that belief in God constitutes belief in a kind of magic. This assertion, can only be made if one either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is. Or (and I’m worried that this is far more common than it ought to be) is only interested in the rhetorical value of the word and doesn’t actually care that the assertion is a false one.

That is, if magic is to be objectionable, it can’t simply be something that one, personally, doesn’t understand. If that’s all we mean by magic (as in the quotation above), then I completely agree that almost the whole of theology would be “magic” to the New Atheists–as they understand little to none of it. But this is hardly a point in favor of atheism.

Of course, the word “magic” is often used to reference something that isn’t really an explanation. A word that is used as a kind of filler for a real explanation. But this, too, fails to help the atheist.

First is the simple fact that, in order to make this work, the New Atheist is reduced to arguing against the “god-of-the-gaps”. Which immediately means that we’re no longer discussing the God of any of the great monotheist religions. Again, this is either ignorance or a sloppy appeal to rhetoric, not a point against a religion than anyone actually believes in.

God is an explanation for many things in reality we experience–not an efficient cause under the model of science, but a perfectly reasonable explanation in other contexts. One can try to argue that there is a problem with these explanations. What one can’t rationally do is say that God is not an explanation–which is what appeals to the word “magic” do.

The technical term for “magic”, in this sense, is “brute fact”–something that is true without any explanation whatsoever. And it is no small point that it is typically atheists, not theists, that appeal to brute facts in discussing the explanation for the universe.

That is what atheists have traditionally said, of course: that the universe has no explanation for its existence. And this is, logically, no different from saying “the universe is magic”.

And it isn’t enough to say “well, maybe there really is no explanation” or “I’m okay with not knowing”. Both of these things contradict inquiry–and even show a misunderstanding of the science many atheists claim to cherish. The fact is that theists have offered an explanation (meaning that suggesting that there isn’t one is simply false). No theory is ever overturned by appeals to the idea that some things just aren’t explicable. Nor are they stopped by self-righteously declaring that it is morally preferable to live in ignorance rather than accept the best explanation on offer.

“Planetary orbits are a brute fact” and “I’m okay with not knowing why biodiversity exists” aren’t legitimate responses to Newton and Darwin. These kinds of statements aren’t legitimate responses to any explanation whatsoever. They are appeals to magic in all but name.

As such, it is those who make these and similar statements toward theists who are confessing a belief in a kind of magic.

 


Secular Dogma

sj-sallyMoving on from individual religious experience, Mackie discuses religious histories. In particular, he discusses secular religious histories, and I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions.

That is, Mackie rightly sees that all the most famous theories on the origins and social function of religion are far too reductionistic to be considered valid. They all seem to assume that, because they can point to a particular effect or use of religion, they have thereby explained all religion.

In pointing out these problems, Mackie makes a rather penetrating observation of Marxism:

“What is more, the characteristic Marxist over-optimism of expecting social conflict and alienation themselves to disappear after a proletarian revolution is itself best understood as a kind of secularized salvationism, the expression of a consoling illusion different, indeed, in specific content but not in general character from the vision of a supernatural ideal realm.”

This caught my attention, not because Marxism is terribly relevant to our current social context, but because similar observations can be made, in any time, of those who are most passionately anti-religious.

The current wave of anti-theists (the New Atheists) can be almost entirely understood as enlightenment-revivalists. Setting aside their lack of concern for what killed the enlightenment in the first place, the logical problems with its propaganda, and the horrific acts it spawned, it is worth noting that the same sort of secular salvationism does seem to have taken hold in this group.

There is a near-constant implication, after all, that the problems of humanity–threats of terrorism, oppression of the poor, lack of education–will be removed or greatly diminished so long as one can rid the world of religion. There is even, if one looks for it, an unspoken assumption that one can count one’s self one of the “brights”, one of the intelligensia, if only one can thoroughly embrace an atheistic way of thinking.

In both cases, we have a secularized salvationism–the first being social, and the second a matter of personal value and identity. This is not unlike the religious claim that devotion to God is beneficial to society and empowering to the individual.

Essentially, the emotional issues traditionally addressed by the world’s great religions are fundamental questions of the human condition. These needs cannot be removed from one’s nature simply by rejecting particular answers to them, or eschewing the trappings of religion.

A thoughtful approach, therefore, will not simply replace one consoling illusion for another–say, dogmatic religion for dogmatic atheism–but by taking an altogether more nuanced view of both these questions and the answers presented by the world’s great religions.

And that is where one must start (and where far too many refuse to start): asking these basic questions and examining the options available.

When one does this, the foibles, and sheer uselessness, of blunt materialism become much more obvious.


Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter

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“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.


Materialsm or Your Lying Eyes

groucjoAfter defending the argument from evil, Mackie turns to the theistic argument from religious experience. This is probably the argument that comes the closest to the average theist’s reasons for believing: some personal experience of the divine presence. Though it is not an often used argument in academic discussions, it warrants attention for this reason.

I entered the chapter expecting to largely agree with Mackie. I expected that he’d focus on the entirely reasonable point that one person’s experience is not necessarily evidence to another (though even this isn’t really right). But he didn’t seem interested in doing so. Rather, he precedes to argue that having a religious experience is not a good reason to become a theist.

He does so first by posing the question as to whether or not such experiences are real. Of course, all people agree that it is possible to have artificial experiences (hallucinations or the like), but this is not much of an argument on its own.

That is, anyone who eats and moves in the real world implicitly agrees that one should take experience for valid unless there is a reason to suspect it.

As such, Mackie has the burden of proof on this particular point, but it is not clear whether he understands this.

As is often the case with Mackie, goalposts seem to shift around as he writes. He points out that people have experiences of different, contradictory beliefs (referencing the different religions of the world). Of course, this is a genuine issue for any particular religion. What it is not is a reason to be an atheist. After all, people disagree on matters of fact all the time; saying that people disagree doesn’t prove that all of them are wrong.

Evidence for one religion is indeed evidence against another. What it is not is evidence for atheism, and the “many religions” argument really adds up to no more than variations on this logical fallacy.

Mackie, however, moves on to better points. He claims that there are other explanations for religious experience–namely, the subconscious. This definitely shows the trends of his time; today we’d speak in terms of evolutionary psychology (though I’m not convinced that’s an improvement).

The trouble with this is that it proves too much. One can use the same argument to “disprove” any experience whatsoever. This is the classic case for solipsism. We can explain all experience in terms of subconscious motivations, or evolutionary spin-off, or useless epiphenominon, or mad scientists stimulating your disembodied brain, or whatever fanciful idea one prefers. That doesn’t remotely mean that the universe is all an illusion.

But, if it doesn’t, then the same sort of explanations don’t mean than any particular experience is invalid. We don’t know that hallucinations are invalid not because we can explain them in terms of the unconscious (that’s quite a bit harder than it sounds, anyway), but because they are inconsistent with our other experiences.

But Mackie can’t seem to point to anything about religious experiences as such that are inconsistent with our other experience. Assuming one has a religious experience, one is perfectly rational to accept it as valid.

This is why many religious people feel a little like Holocaust survivors listening to denials of the event. Claiming that we can explain why a group of oppressed people would have an emotional desire to invent such stories–or even come to believe in them does not remotely give a survivor good reason to deny the Holocaust. It is blatantly ad hoc.

And it definitely doesn’t appreciate that the deniers, too, have emotional motivations for their position.

But if this doesn’t answer the question of validity, what does? Even if it isn’t a case for atheism, religious experiences do often contradict one another. What of that?

This is where I agree with Mackie. He points out that all such experiences happen in a context, and are interpreted in terms of the individual’s prior knowledge. I think there is great cause to be careful about what such experiences actually say in terms of particular doctrines and beliefs.

It is far too easy to presume that a particular doctrine is true because one’s religious experience that has been interpreted in a particular way. All of the most spiritual people I know have advised caution in reaching too many conclusions on these grounds.

And that is the answer, I think. No one is making the argument that such experience, considered in isolation, is a rock-solid proof of any highly-specific theology. Rather it is taken as evidence for the spiritual in the same way that any experience is evidence.

It is those who want to overstep the bounds of that experience, and extrapolate wildly (like some theists do with their experiences, and some atheists do when watching science documentaries) who are making the mistake. Those who simply report an experience of the spiritual.

As hard as it is to imagine anyone who takes a careful approach taking this as proof of minor doctrinal points, it is much harder to imagine a fair-minded person concluding that her spiritual experience is to be completely dismissed as evidence of anything.

And that is precisely what Mackie is asking those who have had such experiences to do–and without offering any clear reason why.


The Enlightenment’s Unskeptical Disciples

“The only way, really, to pursue a godlessness in good conscience is to forget history.”

– David Bentley Hart

In context, I found this a deeply penetrating statement about the condition of the current discussion between theists and materialists. What is that context? I highly recommend the full talk, but it can be summarized as follows:

The claim was never true, but it was (in some ways) understandable that Enlightenment thinkers would believe that a society liberated from all belief in transcendence would achieve new heights of prosperity and morality–that enough education, or the right social programs, would do what religion could not.

Now that we are living in the wake of the bloodiest century in all of human history, it takes a deep lack of curiosity (or downright willful ignorance), to believe that a godless society is the unqualified good to be zealously pursued that so many proclaim it to be.

Hart points out that Nietzsche’s fear of the “last men”–of those who have no deep truth to speak, no rational basis for morality, and therefore no meaning in their lives–now seems rather quaint. This idea has gone from a horrific and seemingly wild proclamation to a banal, almost tedious, observation the facts.

The fact that so many, from the New Atheists to an all-too-large group of theists, have such a distorted, shallow view of what it is that Christianity actually claims is only the most recent evidence that ours is an age which has become so used to living without transcendence that far too many of us don’t even understand the meaning of the term.

And we can’t, of course, correct the problems sparked by the naivety of the Enlightenment thinkers simply by insisting that their view of reality was perfectly correct. And, whether they realize it or not, this is exactly what Dawkins and his fans are doing–unreflectively buying into Enlightenment propaganda as if it were a new and established truth they’d discovered themselves. So far, we’ve seen no sign that this group is even remotely aware of the connections between their own ideas and the mass slaughters of the twentieth century.

I, for one, think there are very good reasons to dismiss materialism as false. But, if it is true, it is a catastrophic truth–a bearer of death and oblivion. Those who speak as if it were, in some unspecified way, a glorious triumph have simply ignored the facts.


Hume Defects to Theism?

UnknownI’ve never been sure why modern materialists are so confident that David Hume has shown their position to be correct. And neither reading his work, nor explanations of him, has helped to explain it. In fact, it’s led me to the opposite conclusion.

Take, for instance, the claim that we can dismiss traditional notions of causation (and, therefore, dismiss theistic arguments like the Kalam) on the grounds that Hume “showed” that we can’t trust the common sense of causation. Of course, it’s always important to note that Hume himself didn’t take the position that he “showed”, but there is a bigger problem here.

What Hume actually showed is that, given materialism, there’s no explanation for the fact that inductive reasoning (and thereby science) actually works.

What is amazing is that so many have responded by soberly reporting that causation doesn’t exist. Clearly, causation does exist. What’s actually been proved here is that there are parts of reality that materialism cannot explain.

Surely, it is questioning materialism that is the reasonable response, and declaring “then causation must not exist” that is the appeal to magic.

And so it typically goes, so long as one isn’t deeply committed to defending materialism.

I think the same is the case for the argument that only properties exist–that there is no things that have properties. There is no cup, says Hume, only cylindricalness, solidity, height, width, and so forth.

Why does Hume think this? He gives an argument, but it is largely based in the idea that all information is received through the senses. By the time he’s done naming off all the properties of a thing, he’s exhausted the information of the senses, and so has nothing on which to claim that there is an actual object there, in addition to the properties.

And this applies to people as well as cups. But, anyone who believes that she (and not just a collection of properties) exists, will have to question Hume’s approach.

And the problem seems to be this idea that we only know what comes through our senses.

I find arguments like these excellent reductio ad absurdum arguments, which tell us a great deal about why materialism is false. That being the case, it seems to me that Hume’s name ought to be found on the lips of theists, pointing out the consequences of accepting this view.

I hope to develop these ideas further in the future. But, for now, I think it significant to point out that, as a theist, I simply don’t accept that things like causation are illusory.

And, if that is the cost of abandoning theism, I’d need a very good reason to do so.